Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

3.4: Simple Past Tense of Verbs

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Keep in mind that English’s past-tense complexity leaves you with a choice of various English ways to translate German’s straightforward past tense. Given ich hatte, you will need to consider context in order to choose from: “I had,” “I was having,” or “I did have.” In any case, German past tense always indicates that the action or status is completed and done.

    Regular Verbs

    Most English verbs form their past tense by adding the suffix –ed (example: played), and German regular verbs behave similarly, by adding the suffix –t– (or, when pronounceability requires it, –et-). However, unlike English verbs, which lose their person/number verb suffixes in past tense (example: I played, she played) German verbs do carry person/number suffixes: They are simply appended to the past-tense suffix. Compare the person/number suffixes you already learned in Unit 2 on p. 12, and note the similarities between those present-tense endings and these past-tense endings. Thus, using spielen (to play) and warten (to wait) as our examples:

    1ST ich spielte (I played) wir spielten
    2ND du spieltest ihr spieltet
    3RD er/sie/es spielte sie/Sie spielten
    1ST ich wartete wir warteten
    2ND du wartetest ihr wartetet
    3RD er/sie/es wartete sie/Sie warteten


    1. The third person singular past tense is the same as the first person singular.
    2. Watch out for potential confusion between present-tense and past-tense forms of regular verbs. Consider:

    Wartest du? (Are you waiting?)
    Wartetest du? (Did you wait?)

    Let’s examine wartetest: First you can recognize the ending –est as the person/number marker, since it matches the subject du. That leaves you with a stem of wartet-. Your dictionary will tell you that there is no such infinitive-form verb as warteten, and there is such a word as warten, so therefore the root of this word must be wart-, and the –et– suffix must be a past-tense marker.

    Irregular Verbs

    These verbs form their simple past tense by undergoing a vowel change just as “swim” and “give” do in English (swam, gave). The changes are always indicated in the list of irregular verbs in your dictionary. With a few exceptions, these verbs all share the same pattern of endings. Let us use schwimmen (to swim) as our typical example:

    1ST ich schwamm wir schwammen
    2ND du schwammst ihr schwammt
    3RD er/sie/es schwamm sie/Sie schwammen

    Note: Both the first and third person singular past tense forms of irregular verbs have no endings.

    Exceptions to the Rule

    There are a few common verbs in German that do not follow the general rule in the formation of their simple past forms. These are listed in the list of irregular verbs, because they have a change of vowel in the past tenses. Some common examples are:

    brennen (to burn) brannte
    bringen (to bring) brachte
    denken (to think) dachte
    senden (to send) sandte
    wenden (to turn) wandte
    wissen (to know a fact) wußte
    kennen (to know a person/object) kannte

    Finally, note that “simple past” is called “preterite” in some grammar reference works.

    This page titled 3.4: Simple Past Tense of Verbs is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Howard Martin revised by Alan Ng.

    • Was this article helpful?